‘This Marlowe’ by Michelle Butler Hallett

This MarloweReviewed by Alison Gillmor

Recreating the fraught final days of poet and playwright Christopher Marlowe, called Kit by intimate friends──and some equally intimate enemies──Michelle Butler Hallett’s fifth book gives some very bloody flesh to the bare bones of historical fact. This dense, daring genre hybrid explores the dark realities of Elizabethan England, while throwing some refracted light onto our own turbulent time.

The Newfoundland-based Butler Hallett (deluded your sailors, Skywaves) isn’t the first to be drawn to this lurid literary bio. Marlowe’s verifiable details are few but fascinating──humble origins, profligate talent, an early violent death. The truth commingles with a stew of tempting rumours──gay desire, wayward criminality, conspiracies, murder plots, secret deals. A Canterbury shoemaker’s son who attended Cambridge, a man of letters who was also a brawler, a rakehell and possibly a spy, Marlowe died at age 29, stabbed in the eye in a murky, much-disputed incident at a lodging-house.

This Marlowe centres on 1593, Kit’s fateful final year, as intrigue roils around the aging Queen Elizabeth, who seems set to die without a declared heir. Marlowe is barely scraping a living──despite his education and his success as a playwright, he has little chance to advance in a system bound by nepotism and patronage. (As Kit’s father tells him, “Learned as a king or stunned as a rock, [he stands] in this world but a cobbler’s son.”)

Kit finds himself involved in English espionage at home and in the Low Countries, caught between the shifty ambitions of two rival spymasters, Sir Robert Cecil and the Earl of Essex. Butler Hallett takes us into an obscure welter of Catholic plots and Calvinist extremism, political ploys and murderous personal grudges.

In Butler Hallett’s hands, Kit comes off as a fascinating and contradictory figure, part martyred freethinker and part unscrupulous opportunist. Taking as his motto, “That which nourishes me destroys me,” he is both charismatic and carelessly destructive. Like the overreaching antiheroes of many of his plays, Butler Hallett’s Marlowe seems to represent the birth of the individual modern conscience, answerable only to itself. He distrusts the authority of Church and state, an attitude both liberating and, in 1593, dangerous. One of his former university mates is fearful: “Thy will to decide so much for thyself,” the friend warns, will surely bring exile──or worse.

There’s a lot of “or worse” in this sometimes graphically gruesome novel. Butler Hallett uses prickly, angular language to call up the extremes of the era. She describes lavishness and luxury—Kit and his patrons eat roasted peacock as the creature’s feathers lie scattered on the table──as well as stink and squalor. She writes of the scratch of fleas and the scrabble of rats, of the mud and stink of the River Thames, of disfiguring smallpox scars and phlegmy winter coughs. Marlowe speaks of the corpse of a religious martyr: “The lice frenzied out of the hair shirt, boiled up, said one witness.” With the constant threat of disease and brute violence, this is a world where death is vivid and very close. One character keeps a child’s skull on his desk as a memento mori.

Then there are the cruelties of rackings and burnings and beheadings and bear-baitings and brandings. One of the crown’s torturers, Robin Poley, has a disturbingly erotic recollection of seeing his mother, Jane, subjected to the scold’s bridle: “As Jane sat at the table, head bowed with the weight of the iron muzzle, bleeding from the mouth, weeping, Robin studied the mechanism: a cage for the head attached to a tongue-flattening gag. Vigorous metaphor and good design: ever after, Robin cultivated a taste for them.”

In one very difficult sequence, Thomas Kyd, Marlowe’s lover and fellow writer, is accused of treason and heresy, taken to Bridewell prison and broken on the rack. Butler Hallett is unsparing in her evocation of the physical and mental effects of torture. “The rolling tension first strained tendons, then muscles, then bones. Joints cracked. Tissues ruptured. Will tore. The rhetorics of guilt and innocence fell away, as did ideals, and ideas, of being human. All that remained: flesh. Tough, tough flesh.” In passages that hold a lot of ugly relevance for our own culture, Butler Hallett also makes it clear that torture doesn’t work, except to bloodily bring forth whatever the torturer wants to hear.

Paragraph by paragraph, there is a precise and visceral power to Butler Hallett’s writing, but she sometimes struggles with overall structure. This Marlowe is not meant to be a standard historical narrative, but when the characters are doing so much plotting──and planning and scheming and twisting and turning──the author needs to carefully manage her own. The novel’s numerous narrative lines eventually become thickly tangled, while several minor but crucial characters remain undeveloped, almost interchangeable.

At the centre of this confusion, Kit Marlowe remains a mesmerizing character, and the bleeding body politic of his age holds a horrible fascination. And certainly Butler Hallett’s pitch-black prose goes a long way to explaining the grim butchery and gleeful gore of so much late Elizabethan drama.

Goose Lane | 444 pages | $32.95 | cloth | ISBN #9780864929204

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